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Should COVID-19 Cases Force Classroom Closures? The Debate Unfolds In Chicago

Around the country, school districts are grappling with the tricky question of when and how to quarantine students and staff after confirmed cases of COVID-19.

8th grade students enter Richardson Middle School as 6th thru 8th graders return to in-person learning in the West Lawn neighborhood on March 8, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Just minutes into a live-streamed school reopening event hosted by the Chicago Teachers Union Wednesday, the chat box on Zoom began buzzing with questions: 

What is the protocol if there is a positive case in a classroom?, one parent wrote. If teachers and kids are masked, does this mean that the class can continue without being shut down?

The flurry of questions reflects a growing concern for parents and educators — and not just in Chicago. Around the country, school districts are grappling with the tricky question of when and how to quarantine students and staff after confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus. 

Parents are watching closely to see what school leaders decide as they balance risk and safety along with the potential unpredictability of children getting sent home. 

In Chicago, the question of when to quarantine — and whether to quarantine vaccinated students and staff — has become a flashpoint between the union and school district officials as the start of school approaches, the delta variant presents fresh challenges, and vaccines are not yet approved for children 11 and under. 

Chicago school officials have moved to mostly phase out the practice of closing classrooms or schools, instead opting for quarantines for unvaccinated students and staff — a proposal in line with state guidance. If cases arise at schools, the district has so far said that unvaccinated children exposed to COVID-19 would be sent home for 14 days. After a temporary pause for contact tracing, vaccinated children and staff would not have to quarantine. Only if absolutely necessary, such as multiple cases linked to in-school transmission, would an entire school be closed, the district says in its latest bargaining proposal. 

That’s largely in line with the latest recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said earlier this week that asymptomatic, fully vaccinated students and staff who’ve been in close contact with COVID positive individuals do not need to quarantine — as long as masks are correctly worn in school. (Chicago is requiring universal masking for students and staff.)

But with the delta variant leading to a rise in cases, and breakthrough infections traced among the vaccinated, the city’s teachers union says it shouldn’t settle for looser guardrails. As the timeline ticks for a fresh agreement with the district before school starts Aug. 30, the union is pushing to preserve rules from spring that dictated when to quarantine student pods or entire classrooms, suspend school operations, and, in some instances, force districtwide closure.

According to district data, 676 “pods” of Chicago students were quarantined between March 2020 and the first week of August 2021 due to COVID-19. The data does not specify how many students were quarantined in total (a pod can include up to 15 students).

Union executive board member Debby Pope, writing in the chat box of the live-streamed event, told parents that the district’s stance is “concerning with the spread of Delta and our medical understanding that vaccinated people can spread the disease.”

The Illinois Board of Education has essentially said schools can keep operating without widespread quarantines as long as everyone keeps a mask on. But school districts across the state have interpreted that in different ways. 

Elgin’s U-46, the second largest school district in the state, has said it will work with local health departments to determine the closure of a classroom or school building if the number of cases continues to rise. The district’s unique challenge is that it is divided between three counties — Cook, DuPage, and Kane — and will have to work a trifecta of health departments to make decisions.

Springfield School District 186, which plans to start school Aug. 23, will conduct contract tracing to identify unvaccinated students or staff who were in contact with someone infected with coronavirus. Vaccinated students who are symptomatic would have to quarantine. Students and staff will be required to quarantine for a recommended period of time, which could be anywhere from seven to 14 days according to recent CDC guidance.

Bree Hankins, a spokeswoman for Springfield School District 185, said there’s a low chance for the district to close a class or close a school building. 

“We have not had an instance where an entire class was under quarantine or a school had to be closed,” she said. “We also have not had any known instances of spread in our school settings.”

One of Chicago’s largest charter networks, Acero Schools, is also in conversation with the teachers union about quarantine protocols: “These conversations include robust 14-day quarantine measures for K-12 classrooms, entire schools and the entire network if needed,” said Acero schools strategy and external affairs officer Helena Stangle.

But the question of whether to require quarantines for fully vaccinated and asymptomatic students and staff remains unresolved, she said. 

In Chicago, the debate over when and how to quarantine has stoked another worry among educators: If some students are sent home but others are not, teachers could have to do double-duty teaching some children in a classroom and others via a screen — a practice that was widely criticized last year. 

“This spring, simultaneous instruction felt like the least effective method in terms of my time and students’ experience,” said Madeleine Greene, a teacher at Tarkington Park School of Excellence on Chicago’s South Side. “It is a struggle to be fully present for six or so students in front of me, and fully present for 25-30 tuning in at home. CPS needs to use its federal relief funding to expand staffing and reduce class sizes, or allow for fully-remote and fully in-person settings.”

The back-and-forth on the issue and the rising tenor of discussions between the union and district again has parents worried.

Maya Johnson, whose first-grade son attends Whittier Elementary School in Pilsen, said she’s not surprised the district hasn’t released its quarantine policy yet: “It’s CPS. I’ve come to expect certain things.”

She’s excited to send her son to school in the fall and feels confident in the masking and distancing measures in place, but the wait for a centralized call on quarantine logistics has left a sour taste in her mouth.

“It’s time-consuming,” Johnson said. “It’s frustrating. You feel like your kids are pulled in the middle of politics.” 

No matter the outcome of the quarantine discussions, Johnson said she’s ready to pull her son from school for a self-imposed quarantine if she feels he’s in danger. “I don’t need a school to tell me to keep my kid home.”

While it’s still difficult to keep her son home from school for a long time, Johnson has more flexibility than some other parents because she works remotely. Her son has done school from home before. Johnson knows he can do it again. 

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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